Designing Nodoka

Building a brand that’s bringing the traditional Japanese tea industry into the future

I’ve never had to rely on finding new business to make up for next month’s rent.

In fact, I’m perfectly content with the handful of clients I’ve made over the course of the 6+ years I’ve been freelancing — those who I refer to as clients first but are considered friends second. These are the people that keep me in check; who challenge my creativity; who make me question my wanting to be a designer. I don’t mind them at all. Not at all.

And then sometimes (a lot of times, actually), I’ll browse Crew–a network that connects designers and developers with people needing help — like I browse Craigslist listings: for the sake of browsing; aimlessly; never with the intention of actually getting anything.

I enjoy it.

Why could you possibly want more? My girlfriend would tell me, in French, of course. “On a pu de place”.

But every now and then, I’ll come across that one posting where the seller doesn’t really understand what they have in their hands. Or they do, but they just want to get rid of it. Like that Kai Kristiansen chair I got for a few bills.

No, I didn’t need a new-ish chair in our apartment. There was just no space for it. (And it needed restoration too…oops). Yet, I went ahead, met the seller, and took it off her hands.

Like my apartment, there was just no way to fit a Crew project in my schedule. No way. And yet, a year ago, I applied for one, fought for it, and delivered on time.

Just like the chair, this project had just the amount of “right” that I couldn’t not apply: It was the right timeframe with the promise of a quick turnaround, the perfect subject matter in the medium I’m most comfortable with: logo design. On Adobe Illustrator! With nothing to code, “it won’t take too long”, I told myself. Easy peasy.

Designing a brand with no name

Suil was looking for someone to help him create a logo and define his new brand and when I saw his listing, despite any hesitations I might have had, I knew I was the right person for the job.

Logo. Organic. Japanese. Tea. It ticked all my boxes.

At the time, I was working on a branding project for an organic cold-pressed juice company. So I was already aware of the challenges Suil might face when developing his brand.

Tea, like juice is a relatively inexpensive item. Side-by-side, the products are identical. For the clientèle, the main differentiators would be the price, the packaging, and the storytelling. Brands in this space tend to be austere; uncomplicated. The product should sell itself.

Suil’s brief was open, but he’d mentioned wanting a logo that would be simple, classic, and clean — very representative of what Japanese design is.

The thing I love about Japanese design is their pairing of fun and quirky yet simple illustrations with a clean, bold typography. It’s an aesthetic that I especially love to apply to my own projects.

At the start of the project, Suil was considering one of two names for his organic tea company. I told him to take his time as I’d need to do my own research before starting the design process anyways (look at his competitors, the general aesthetic of the field and that I’d present him with different options).

By not having a name, it forced me out of my comfort zone (working with type), and to draw something completely new: a custom logo mark; an illustration that has to do with Japanese teas.

My research started with the traditional, more classic aesthetic of Japanese culture. The following moodboards presented more contemporary imagery that utilized bold characters and simple illustrations. It was this contrast in styles that helped me figure out the essence of Suil’s brand — classic and modern. Clean and minimal, but representative of the image that Nodoka wants to project.

With the moodboard choices made, I started exploring different illustrations that fit that spirit, beginning with some of the more obvious choices.

Matcha: Green. Tea leaves. Tokyo: Temples. Circles.

It was around this time that Suil also settled on a name for his company: Nodoka.

And as for the logo mark, he very much enjoyed the idea of tea leaves. So with that in mind, I came up with different solutions that could work with a few different type treatments.

After much deliberation, it was finally the combination of the tea leaves in the circle and the all-caps logotype that Suil chose for Nodoka.

With the logo type and logo mark in hand, he had the tools to create brand assets for the future and together we developed different ways of applying his brand to things like future packaging, an e-commerce website, a retail shop…

Although this was a short-term project, my goal as a graphic designer is always to provide the necessary tools for anyone to continue building on the work long after our relationship has ended.

A good brand is timeless and can hold its own for years on end, and it was great to see Suil continue to champion the aesthetic that we’d built together after I finished my contribution to the project. It’s always incredible to see what starts out as simple ideas become a full-scale project, turning people into entrepreneurs almost overnight.

Since the project ended, I also joined Crew as a full-time designer working with the Product Team. And well, with a full-time job, it’s now extremely difficult to take on outside projects.

But as long as people continue to have ideas, there will always be work for us designers, and there will always be needs to be addressed. As someone who’s now in the “know”, let me tell you that the future is very bright for us.

Let’s all be kind to one another. And be in it for the good of the art, and our profession. It can’t be always about the money.

Want to read more about Nodoka? Hear Suil’s story here, or check out Nodokatea.com and order some of the best Japan has to offer.